Collaborative leadership: creating a team-centric mindset

Andjela Vidojevic

Last updated on: May 18, 2022

“Boss” is almost a dirty word. Its derivatives, “bossy” and “to boss around”, are further proof of its negative connotations. Everyone’s always complaining about their bosses being demanding or needy or not giving them a break.

But are all leaders doomed to an authoritarian reputation with no opportunity for redemption? What if a boss is so approachable and hands-on that when someone tells you “I’ll show you who’s boss” they mean it literally because you can’t tell the boss apart from their employees?

Such a boss exists, and they have embraced collaborative leadership and invited their employees to share in their “boss powers”.

In this blog post, we’ll explain what collaborative leadership means and provide practical examples. We’ll further discuss the pros and cons of this leadership style and what makes a great collaborative leader. Finally, we’ll provide some advice on how to improve collaborative leadership within your organization.

Collaborative leadership creating a team-centric mindset - cover

Table of Contents

What is collaborative leadership?

So what is a collaborative leadership style? It’s a management approach that ditches the hierarchical organization model and aims to bring executives, managers, and employees to work together on achieving common goals.

In other words, collaborative leadership depends on everyone collaborating across organizational boundaries, sharing control and responsibility, instead of those at the top holding the reins.

This type of leadership is grounded in the idea that we’re smarter together and relies on the collective intelligence of a company’s talent in solving complex problems and driving innovation. Collaborative leaders strive to create a positive team climate resulting in psychological safety, where people feel free to contribute their ideas and participate in decision-making. Transparency is key, and no single group controls the flow of information.

This leadership style represents the opposite of the traditional command-and-control approach, which is top-down in nature and involves a command chain from senior management to the bottom-level employees.

Here’s a comparison of the two leadership styles:

✊ Command-and-control leadership 🖐️ Collaborative leadership
StructureTop-down
command chain
Cross-organizational
network
Information
flow
Controlled by leadership;
info disclosed on a need-to-know basis
Free
and transparent
Decision-making
power
In management’s handsIn team’s hands
AccountabilityManagementEveryone
Leadership
role
Direction,
control
Influence,
facilitation
Employees’
role
Passive
compliance
Active
engagement
Team
dynamic
Power
struggle
Mutual
empowerment

What are the features of collaborative leadership?

While different organizations practice collaborative leadership in different ways, there are some common features that characterize this leadership style:

  • Free information flow across all levels of the organization — Unlike in traditional leadership where senior management is in control of information and distributes it only when they deem it necessary, here, everyone has access to it;
  • Collaborative decision-making and problem-solving — The leader doesn’t single-handedly make decisions and come up with solutions. Instead, they empower the team to work on them together;
  • Mutual support and empowerment — Collaborative leadership depends on mutual trust, respect, and support among employees and managers, instead of individuals acting in their self-interest alone;
  • Co-responsibility and mutual accountability — Collaborative leaders encourage everyone to contribute, recognize everyone’s contributions, and thus also inspire a sense of mutual accountability instead of “playing the blame game”;
  • “We” mentality over “me” mentality — This type of leader creates a clear shared purpose for everyone to strive toward together, instead of everyone focusing on their individual goals;
  • Leadership of the process, not the people — A collaborative leader puts their ego aside, and instead of directing everyone’s work, they merely facilitate the collaborative process and steer it toward effectiveness.

Workplace trends that led to the rise of collaborative leadership

The shift to this type of leadership didn’t just happen overnight. It was brought about by a few emerging workplace trends that have made collaborative leadership more feasible and practical. Here are the most important ones among them.

Trend #1: Innovations in collaboration technology

Doing away with the hierarchical structure wouldn’t be entirely possible without the appropriate tools to keep the communication and collaboration organized. That’s why innovations in collaboration technology have been instrumental in bringing about the shift toward a more collaborative approach in leadership.

Thanks to various project management apps, for example, employees and management can communicate their task progress and ideas without having to meet up to do it. They can easily collaborate on a project even when they work on different schedules and live in different time zones. It’s simpler than ever to document and leave a trail of everything that’s happening so that all employees have insight into the relevant information whenever they need it.

What’s more, using an online business messaging app, such as Pumble, makes it easy for a team to communicate in real-time, even if they all work remotely. This connectedness across real and metaphorical distances allows for closer collaboration without the need of anyone being in charge per se.

💡If you want to know how to improve communication in your remote team, read all about it in our blog post: 10 Principles of communication remote teams should follow.

Trend #2: The rise in cross-functional collaboration

Thanks to the previously mentioned workplace trend — the emergence of state-of-the-art collaboration technology — another important shift has taken place in the workplace — the breaking down of the siloed structure in traditional organizations.

Companies usually have multiple departments handling different aspects of business, e.g. sales, finances, marketing, etc. However, collaboration tools have contributed to the popularization of cross-functional collaboration. This type of collaboration means that employees from different departments of the organization can work together to achieve a common goal, each bringing their unique skills and expertise to the table.

Since cross-functional collaboration is made easy through a variety of tools, employees from different parts of the organization can communicate freely whenever they need help or assistance in solving a problem or finishing a project. This way, they can take initiative on their own, thus eliminating the need for someone to direct and structure their efforts.

Trend #3: Data-based decision-making

Due to digitization and big data, companies no longer have to rely on intuition and guesswork in decision-making. Now, all the data pertaining to your business operations is accessible to you in a digital format, and so are the smart tools you can use to draw valuable insights from it.

That’s why the business world has seen a rise in data-driven decision-making (DDDM). Instead of speculating about the potential outcomes of their decisions, organizations can now rely on data to understand what’s working and what needs to change. However, if they want to rely on DDDM, leaders need to take into account every aspect of their business, i.e. the needs of every department.

In that regard, it’s not surprising that a recent survey has found that leaders who have embraced collaborative decision-making base their (mutual) decisions on information much more than other types of leaders. They want to have a holistic, 360-degree view of where they’re standing and how they can work together to improve.

Trend #4: Increased appreciation of individual talents and strengths

In the words of a business leader and leadership coach Lorna Davis: “We don’t need heroes; we need radical interdependence.”

Lorna recognizes a shift from the “hero” mentality to a more collaborative mindset in leaders. “Hero” leaders (aka traditional command-and-control ones) want all control and credit, which is why they shun any input from their subordinates. As companies realize that no one person has all the answers and that there’s strength in diversity of perspectives, they are beginning to turn to a more collaborative approach.

What are some examples of collaborative leadership?

Let’s consider some examples of collaborative leadership in practice to better understand what it is.

🔶 Example of collaborative leadership in a marketing team

Stella, the leader of a marketing team, is checking in with other members in the team chat app to see how the newest social media campaign is going. She doesn’t need to give her employees instructions on how to run the campaign — she trusts everyone is capable of coordinating with others and contributing toward the shared goals. Team members John and Oliver promptly prove her right by showing initiative and willingness to collaborate.

An example of collaborative leadership in action in a marketing team (business messaging app Pumble)
An example of collaborative leadership in action in a marketing team (business messaging app Pumble)

🔶 Example of collaborative leadership in a product design team

Keith is a manager of a team working on the company’s new product design. The team is trying to decide on the UX color scheme. Keith doesn’t interfere and try to impose his opinion even though he has a lot of experience in the field. He pops in only to draw the team’s attention to James, a recently hired UX researcher, who offers some valuable research-based insight that could steer the team away from their initial idea toward a more suitable solution.

An example of collaborative leadership in action in a product design team (business messaging app Pumble)
An example of collaborative leadership in action in a product design team (business messaging app Pumble)

🔶 Example of collaborative leadership in a beauty products company

A board of directors of a beauty products company division summons a live quarterly innovation and planning meeting to discuss ideas for new products. At the meeting, every single employee is asked to contribute ideas and opinions.

A couple of years earlier, the company tried launching some new products at the proposal of the senior management, all of which failed. After a while, the executive committee realized employees knew the products were going to fail but didn’t feel free to say anything.

After that incident, the leadership decided to switch to a more collaborative approach to management, realizing that they could come to much smarter and more profitable decisions together.

Where is collaborative leadership used?

Collaboration is a powerful approach to leadership, and it has some advantages over the more traditional leadership models (which we’ll discuss briefly). However, it’s not unconditionally superior to other leadership styles, and it isn’t always appropriate to use.

We reached out to Daniel Edds, MBA, a management consultant and the author of the book “Leveraging the Genetics of Leadership”, and he gave us the following explanation for this disparity: 

“Education is an example of an industry where collaboration among teachers is documented to improve academic achievement in students. In contrast, collaborative leadership would be a disaster in the military, even though it does happen. Think of the chaos and bloodshed if a superior force ambushed a company of 150 soldiers, and each of the officers needed to collaborate with their teams to determine a course of action. It would be a massacre.”

What industries can benefit from collaborative leadership?

According to Edds, the industries that can benefit the most from collaborative leadership are the ones where “collaboration has a proven track record of improving business outcomes.” He specifically points out the following industries:

  • Healthcare
  • Education
  • Manufacturing
  • Technology

When should collaborative leadership be used?

This leadership style can be appropriate to use in any industry under certain circumstances. Let’s explore some situations where collaborative leadership can be highly beneficial.

➡️ Solving complex problems that require interdisciplinary collaboration

Every organization is essentially a live organism whose cells need to function together in unison for the live organism to function and survive at all. So no matter the issue, all parts of the organization need to work together to achieve the best possible solution. In other words, most problems in any company are interdisciplinary problems. This means that no one person (department or sector) can provide the right solutions.

Let’s take as an example a global issue of climate change. While natural scientists have been working on the problem for decades, the social aspect of the issue has been neglected, which has led us to a global environmental crisis today. A proper solution can be found only when all parties (natural scientists, politicians, sociologists, etc.) come aboard to provide their perspectives on the issue.

On a smaller scale, i.e. in a company, all departments need to provide their insights on any idea in order for it to work. For example, the marketing department can have a grandiose plan for the best and most effective marketing campaign to spread brand awareness. But, if the financial sector vetoes it due to insufficient funds, they need to work out a more realistic solution.

➡️ When there are multiple multiple stakeholders involved

Collaborative leadership is a must when there are multiple stakeholders involved in a project, especially when they come from diverse backgrounds and have different expectations. For example, if your company is partnering up with other companies for a shared project, you all need to participate in decision-making if you want the arrangement to work.

➡️ When the problem directly concerns employees

When a leader needs to make a decision that directly affects their employees, collaborative leadership is the right approach. This way, you ensure they have a say in issues directly concerning them and make sure everyone is happy with the outcome.

For example, if you’re trying to figure out the optimal number of team meetings per week, it’s best to consult your team and make sure you make the most of your time together.

A collaborative leader creating an emoji-based employee poll (business messaging app Pumble)
A collaborative leader creating an emoji-based employee poll (business messaging app Pumble)

➡️ When innovation is the main goal

Companies have been aware of the fact that diversity drives innovation for a long time now. Homogeneity in thinking (or worst yet, one person making all the decisions) is dangerous because it doesn’t challenge us to get outside of our comfort zone and look at the problem from multiple perspectives.

On the other hand, when many diverse individuals in the team are free to express their opinions, disagreements, and opposing viewpoints, we are challenged to a higher level of cognitive action as well as empathy in understanding how the issue at hand affects others.

Like in Example 3 above (about the beauty products company) — complacency and uniformity in decision-making can lead to failure due to the refusal to see the problem from others’ points of view.

➡️ When inclusiveness is the main goal

Sometimes, leaders’ primary goal is to inspire participation and individual empowerment, and collaborative leadership is the ideal approach in such situations. For example, a local community leader who wants to inspire broader political participation within the community should engage the community more in the problem-solving and decision-making processes to get everyone interested and make them see they can contribute to the community’s overall well-being.

Why is collaborative leadership important?

This leadership style is essential if you want to harvest your team’s maximum potential and drive the best possible outcomes. Here are the benefits of collaborative leadership, some of which we’ve already touched upon.

#1 Collaborative leadership maximizes innovation

We’ve already established that the diversity of opinions and backgrounds that comes into play in collaborative leadership is a key ingredient of innovation. As Harvard Business School’s Linda Hill has noted:

“Innovation is not about a solo genius having an ‘aha moment’; it’s actually a collaborative process, usually with people who are quite different in their point of view.” 

She points out that although people in leadership positions are usually quite brilliant and talented themselves, the smartest among them know that they need to make room for others’ ideas as well.

#2 Collaborative leadership results in better decision-making

This leadership style is also proven to lead to better decision-making, which is also tied to diversity. In fact, research by software company Cleverpop has shown that diverse teams make better decisions 87% of the time. These findings make sense since people coming from different viewpoints are much more likely to eliminate any blind spots that can otherwise lead to serious issues and oversights.

#3 Collaborative leadership improves employee engagement

By involving employees in the decision-making process, leaders boost employee engagement. That’s because collaborative leadership creates a sense of psychological ownership in employees — the sense of ownership over a target, part of the goal, or enterprise in general. Psychological ownership is linked to employee engagement because employees feel a kind of possessiveness and responsibility toward a shared company goal, and they feel like their role in achieving it is essential (rightly so). Thus, everyone is more intrinsically committed to reaching the shared objectives.

#4 Collaborative leadership builds trust

Thanks to its commitment to transparency, openness, and inclusion, this type of leadership builds trust in the workplace, which is one of the most important factors in employee satisfaction.

Trust has an impact on many aspects of employee’s work experience, with respondents of one survey stating it affects their:

  • Sense of belonging (64%)
  • Mental health (55%)
  • Career choices (58%)

#5 Collaborative leadership increases employee loyalty and satisfaction

When employees are given decision-making power, included in planning, and given space to express their ideas, they are more committed and engaged, and they feel a strong sense of belonging. All of these factors lead to a much higher level of satisfaction and loyalty among employees, who feel truly appreciated by the leadership and established in their role within the organization.

#6 Collaborative leadership improves the workflow

As this type of leader encourages cross-functional collaboration from the start, employees are much better at establishing effective and efficient workflows and removing bottlenecks as they appear, as opposed to those teams that wait for their leaders’ command and instructions. Collaborative teams are not afraid to take initiative, accept accountability, and work together on solving a problem instead of trying to cover it up or shift the blame. This way, their work is uninterrupted and dynamic.

What are the challenges of collaborative leadership?

This management approach is not without its problems, especially when first introducing it to an organization used to a more traditional leadership model. Here are some potential challenges you may encounter.

#1 It can be time-consuming

As hinted at in the example about military action provided by Edds, sometimes, there’s no time to take a collaborative approach in leadership. This approach implies that every voice should be heard and every idea considered carefully, which can be a rather slow process. So when time is of the essence, it might be best for one person to take control of the situation and direct the course of action.

#2 It can face resistance

If your company has been a traditional hierarchical organization forever, and suddenly, you want to introduce a more collaborative approach, your efforts can actually be met with employee resistance. When people are accustomed to being told what to do, they get used to a low level of engagement that helps them do just enough to get them through the workday. However, when they are given more autonomy, suddenly, they become burdened with more responsibility and accountability for their own work. This can be scary, which is why your employees might not be delighted with the idea of collaborative leadership at first.

#3 It can result in groupthink

Collaborative leadership may also easily slip into the phenomenon of groupthink. Groupthink happens when people make irrational decisions out of the desire for group conformity and fitting in, without considering any alternatives. If individuals are afraid of expressing their genuine opinions just because they are in contrast with what the majority thinks, this is not real collaboration. As a leader, you need to keep a keen eye on this phenomenon and nip it in the bud if you notice its onset.

#4 It can lead to conflict

The fact everyone’s views and ideas are welcome can also lead to the opposite of conformity — excessive friction within the team. If team members are not effective communicators, the differences in their opinions can lead to conflict rather than a constructive conversation that would bring the best possible solution. That’s why it’s important to foster assertive communication in your team, where everyone is free to speak their mind, but they know how to do it respectfully and with consideration for what others have to say.

#5 It can be challenging for leaders used to command-and-control

A traditional leader who has spent years directing their subordinates and always being in control of the situation may find it challenging to suddenly relinquish control. They may need extensive training or coaching before they learn to subordinate their ego and let others have a seat at the leadership table. It can be especially difficult to watch employees steer the action in the opposite direction of where you would like them to take it.

#6 It can lead to complete disarray if leadership is poor

When you combine all of the above, you can get only one outcome — chaos. It might seem like collaborative leadership implies leaders don’t really have to do much — they just sit back and enjoy while employees lead themselves. But this is far from the truth. If a leader doesn’t know how to guide their team, mediate conflicts, notice and eradicate groupthink, encourage everyone to speak, and do so much more, any attempts at collaboration will fail miserably.

An example of collaborative leadership gone wrong — the leader decides to take control (business messaging app Pumble)
An example of collaborative leadership gone wrong — the leader decides to take control (business messaging app Pumble)

What are the traits of collaborative leaders?

It takes a lot of skill, thought, and hard work to make collaborative leadership work and not slip into anarchy. As a leader, you need to be the connective tissue between your employees, bringing all of their ideas together, helping them grow, and making sure no person is left behind. Here’s what characterizes a good collaborative leader.

✔️ They influence rather than control

The best thing leaders can do for their teams is exercise restraint. Once a leader voices their opinion, employees tend to comply, which shuts down the conversation and extinguishes many creative ideas others might have.

So instead of controlling the conversation, leaders should use their authority to influence others to bloom into their full potential.

Circling back to the “hero” analogy — instead of striving to become a hero leader, you should see your employees as heroes and encourage them to do the same. Andrew Poles of Impact Speaking Lab, a professional training and coaching organization that provides comprehensive leadership training programs, shared with us the following advice:

“Look at each individual in your organization through the lens of Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey framework, that is, as an ordinary person who is being called upon to be a hero on a journey fraught with challenges and difficulties, and who is out to accomplish something great for your organization. Although your employees and teammates may not see themselves this way, that is, as ordinary people with the opportunity to be heroes, when you do, and when you interact with them this way, then they can step into this role and contribute at a much higher level. You can act as their guide on this journey, rather than as the hero yourself.”

✔️ They emphasize transparency

Command-and-control leaders use downward communication to instruct, command, and share only as much information as they deem necessary. In collaborative leadership, the main purpose of downward communication is to share information with the rest of the team. This type of leader exercises transparency and doesn’t attempt to hide anything, not even unpleasant news. This way, they gain the trust and respect of their employees and make it easier for them to communicate openly as well.

✔️ They are empathetic

Empathetic leadership is proven to have positive effects on employees, including increased job satisfaction and performance, as well as innovation. Empathy is the defining characteristic of a collaborative leader since it helps them understand their employees better, be aware of their feelings and needs, and know how to help them realize their full potential with gentle guidance.

✔️ They encourage contrasting ways of thinking

Collaborative leaders don’t shy away from disparate ways of thinking. In fact, they encourage employees to challenge any idea because the freedom to question anything  — not consensus — is what leads to the best possible solution.

We consulted experienced leadership and career coach, Darcy Eikenberg, and she shed some light on the topic: 

“Collaborative leadership shouldn’t be confused with compromising leadership. When we compromise in order to make sure everyone’s happy and that we have consensus, we essentially water down all of our ideas. True collaborative leadership is marked with respectful conflict and challenge, and a psychologically safe work environment where someone is not afraid to question what others believe is true.”

✔️ They possess relational intelligence

Relational intelligence refers to the ability to successfully navigate interpersonal relationships, establish trust, set boundaries, and deal with disagreements in a healthy way. As collaborative leaders are primarily facilitators and mediators, this is a crucial skill to have under their belt.

However, relational intelligence also requires you to subdue your ego.

We asked Dr. Deb Mashek, Ph.D., of Myco Consulting, who helps higher education leaders cultivate collaboration, what she considered the number one trait of collaborative leaders, and she delivered the following reply: 

“Individuals who are well-suited for collaborative leadership are able and willing to advance shared goals by leaving their ego and logo at the door. Collaborative leadership is fundamentally relational, so it’s critical to be able to see and help advance the needs and interests of others as just as important as one’s own.”

✔️ They act as catalysts

Finally, collaborative leaders are catalysts for change. Instead of ordering people around, they provide the support and motivation necessary to inspire others to action. They know how to steer their team toward effectiveness by staying connected, actively listening, and creating a safe environment where everyone can realize their full potential.

How to improve collaborative leadership to create a team-centric mindset

So far, it’s clear that collaborative leadership is not about one mastermind steering the team in the right direction — it’s about a hive mind operating in perfect unison to achieve shared goals. Here are some practical tips on how you can improve the leadership in your organization to achieve that level of collaboration.

Tip #1: Make your shared goals clear

If you want everyone to work in perfect harmony on achieving common goals, the first step is to make those goals crystal clear at all times. It’s easy to lose sight of the bigger picture and get lost in the details of a minor task. However, always having the final objective in mind helps everyone stay on track without you, as a leader, having to keep steering them in the right direction.

Tip #2: Be an active listener

Active listening is one of the most important communication skills anyone should have, let alone a collaborative leader. When you truly listen to your employees and their needs, you encourage an open flow of bottom-up communication, where people feel free to approach you with any ideas, complaints, suggestions, and other remarks.

In an ideal collaborative environment, the concepts of bottom-up and top-down are completely abolished — instead of a hierarchy, there is a network where communication flows freely, and a leader is just one node in it.

Tip #3: Engage talent on the margin

Even in a collaborative environment, some team members tend to be louder than others, and that’s okay since some people are naturally more expressive than others. What’s more, some employees hold back for various reasons, such as personal insecurities, English not being their first language, and similar. What is not okay, though, is when leaders do nothing to engage those whose voices are seldom heard. One of your top tasks as a leader is to make sure everyone gets a chance to speak their mind and contribute their ideas. Otherwise, you’ll always be left with a partial view of the problem.

Tip #4: Actively work to break team silos

The silo mentality is the number one enemy of collaborative leadership. When different teams or groups of employees get comfortable in their bubbles, isolating themselves from others, they can create disruptions in the workflow as well as information flow through the organization, which can have devastating effects for everyone involved.

This can be especially dangerous in distributed organizations, where different teams are grouped together in different locations. The physical distance can create a disconnect and even rivalry among distributed teams. In this case, you can prevent siloization by promoting remote-first practices within your company, such as organizing virtual meetings and creating a centralized knowledge base.

Tip #5: Design systems and processes for collaboration

We’ve seen how easily a collaborative approach to management can lead to anarchy without “a firm hand”. However, that doesn’t mean you should fall back on the “firm hand” mentality. All you need to do is establish processes and procedures for collaboration and teamwork so that everything functions smoothly. The structure you provide this way, combined with open communication, creates a self-sustaining system where employees don’t need a leader to tell them what to do.

Establishing procedures that prescribe how things are to be done is especially integral in hybrid and remote teams, where the distance between team members can complicate company processes further.

💡 If you also want to create a comprehensive communication plan for your team, you can find advice on how to do that coupled with some useful templates here: Planning internal communication for your team (with templates).

Tip #6: Adopt a suitable decision-making model

Since you’re not a sole decision-maker, it’s also crucial to adopt a suitable model of decision-making so that the team can never reach a dead end in their discussion, especially if there are conflicting opinions.

For example, it’s a great idea to carefully consider who gets the final decision rights concerning a certain problem or establish the criteria on how to resolve an impasse.

Tip #7: Fine-tune your ability to steer the team toward effectiveness

A good collaborative leader is always engaged with their team and understands all their habits, preferences, and quirks. This is important because you need to constantly look for new ways to make your team more effective and efficient without breathing down their necks and telling them what to do.

For example, you can evaluate your internal processes, ask employees for feedback, and make adjustments that would improve them. You can also experiment with the ways of further motivating your employees and taking care of their well-being, such as trying out different wellness programs.

Wrapping up: We don’t need another hero — we need collaboration

As you can see, the era of hero leaders who believe they can single-handedly run an organization is over. Collaboration is the new buzzword, and companies are slowly starting to realize the potential of flattening the hierarchy and allowing for a more democratic approach in running a business.

Collaborative leadership breaks the traditional barriers between different levels of organizations and makes the best possible use of everyone’s talents and abilities. Hopefully, this blog post will help you find your personal collaborative approach to lead your organization into a brighter future.

Andjela Vidojevic is a writer specialized in team communication and collaboration with a focus on the remote work experience. She’s a remote worker herself, so while writing, she relies heavily on her own experience as well as on extensive research, which she dives into with great gusto.

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